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Fly Fishing Alberta’s Bow River


The Bow River downstream of Calgary, Alberta, has 5 main entry factors. The world close to Wyndham-Carseland Provincial Park (proven right here) is thought for its many facet channels and enormous rainbow trout. (Dave Jensen photograph)


This text initially appeared within the Oct-Nov-Dec 2017 difficulty of Fly Fisherman journal.

In June 2013, days of heavy rain on prime of melting snowpack created a crippling flood within the Bow River watershed that killed 5 individuals, prompted $5 billion in damages, and just about erased the previous riverbed. Islands had been eliminated, riverbanks eroded, new gravel bars had been created in farmers’ fields, and trout had been left swimming within the streets of downtown Calgary because the water receded.

For many years, fly fishers all over the world knew the Bow as one of many best trout fisheries within the West, however after the flood, many had been left questioning if the Bow would lose its blue ribbon standing. Was the Bow misplaced perpetually? Was it even value fishing anymore? 4 years later, the outcomes are in. Fishing is pretty much as good because it’s at all times been—perhaps even higher. In a river that has at all times been recognized for big trout, the trout within the post-flood period on common are even beastlier. And new infrastructure and a proposed Bow River Entry Plan may imply a reboot for the Bow River.

The Bow River’s Excellent Storm

On the night of June 19, 2013, the rain started to fall and didn’t cease for 3 days. A low-pressure system in regards to the dimension of Tennessee turned trapped alongside the entrance ranges of the Rocky Mountains, held in place by surrounding high-pressure techniques.

Three days of rainfall totaled 8 to 14 inches in some areas, rainfall much like a tropical storm. This, mixed with a big remaining snow pack at greater elevations from a cool spring, and partially frozen or saturated floor, led to the worst flooding in southern Alberta since 1883. Movement within the Bow River peaked at 1,750 cubic meters per second (61,800 cubic ft per second, or about six instances its regular peak price).



Fly Fishing Alberta's Bow River
A strong flood in 2013 prompted $5 billion in property injury and altered the riverbed of the Bow River. A authorities give attention to rebuilding the infrastructure is leading to improved entry, extra and higher public amenities like boat launches, and improved administration of the useful resource. (Mike Donnelly photograph)

Native emergencies had been declared in 32 communities over an space the dimensions of Maine, and greater than 2,200 Canadian Forces troops had been deployed to assist with rescue efforts and a monumental cleanup. Hundreds of volunteers additionally helped individuals dig out and dry out their properties whereas companies and governments assessed the damages.

A neighborhood fly-fishing information observed fish stranded in pockets of water fashioned by the receding river and helped carry collectively volunteers to conduct emergency fish rescues for fish stranded in these remoted areas. Over 5,000 fish had been rescued with the assistance of Trout Limitless, the federal government of Alberta, and dozens of fine Samaritans from the fly-fishing group. Whereas the affect of the rescue on the fishery will not be recognized, we do know that flood occasions negatively affect eggs and 12 months of the younger. Given this potential lack of a complete era, it’s straightforward to examine that the 5,000 fish rescued might have turn into pioneers of life after the flood.

The Aftermath of the Bow River Flood

A number of weeks after the flood, I took a stroll alongside the Bow. Entry to the river was considerably restricted as a result of many of the boat launches had been destroyed, however on foot I used to be astounded by the huge adjustments. New river channels had been created the place there wasn’t something earlier than, complete islands had been washed away, and lumps of river cobble had been piled on shore over 10 ft excessive in locations. Particles was in every single place. One space even uncovered an previous buffalo soar eroding from the riverbank, with bones and stone instruments relationship again hundreds of years.

Regardless of the shortage of practical boat launches, guides and leisure anglers had been again fishing components of the river inside a number of weeks. Once I requested how the fishing was throughout the next summer time, I acquired combined reactions. Some mentioned the fishing had deteriorated, others mentioned it was the identical, and one other contingent mentioned it had improved. No matter your take was, one factor was sure: The Bow was a “new to you” river that pressured even veterans to reboot their fishing habits. Previous to the flood, many fly fishers visited the identical areas day in and day trip. After the flood, these “go-to” holes, riffles, and runs had been now not there. Everybody needed to begin from scratch and discover the fish once more.



For some individuals, having to learn new water, discover, and experiment was thrilling. For others, it was irritating. Personally, I beloved the reboot. It pressured me to go locations I hadn’t been earlier than, attempt completely different flies, and even fish water I beforehand didn’t think about. Considered one of my greatest discoveries after the flood (confirmed by others) was that new microtopography had fashioned in the course of the river similar to mini-depressions in a flat simply giant sufficient to carry one or two fish. Different, extra noticeable habitat adjustments included the disappearance or creation of gravel bars, the filling in of previous undercut banks, and the creation of latest ones.

Another excuse why fly fishers had various success ranges post-flood lies in flies and strategies. Analysis reveals {that a} main flood occasion like 2013 primarily flushes the system. The violent drive of flowing water cleans the river backside, shifting out previous cobble and redepositing new unconsolidated cobbles and gravels. Vegetation can be wiped away. This interprets into poor nymphing circumstances, however higher terrestrial and dry-fly motion. After the flood, most profitable anglers had higher dry-fly fishing than in earlier years the place nymphing had beforehand been the preferred and productive type of fishing. I can personally attest to this as I skilled a few of my greatest ever grasshopper and caddis dry-fly fishing in 2013 and 2014.

Fly Fishing Alberta's Bow River
When the flood scoured silt and particles from the river backside, dry-fly fishing turned more practical, and the variety of spawning websites rose dramatically. (Dave Jensen photograph)

Fishing in 2015 and 2016 was a special story: massive fish in massive numbers. By mid-2015 a buzz began about massive rainbows. Guides reported catch charges of a dozen fish over 20 inches with many over the 2-foot mark per day, not counting the smaller ones. We had been additionally seeing beefier brown trout, however fewer of them, maybe as a result of they don’t sometimes fare as effectively in catastrophic floods, or because of the affect of Saprolegnia fungus that has been affecting them the previous few years.

Along with massive fish, we began to see a rebound in vegetation within the river, which meant bugs had been again and nymphing was again on the rise. In these years we noticed a giant Skwala stonefly hatch, a good Golden Stonefly hatch, thick blankets of caddis, and an extended and big March Brown hatch. It was additionally exhausting to overlook the staples of the river: PMDs, midges, and Tricos.

Large Fish on the Bow River

The presence of those massive fish is instantly attributable to the flood. The violent flows that swept away cobbles, gravel, and vegetation additionally swept away any eggs or susceptible age class of fish like 12 months of the younger, leaving older, greater fish with much less competitors, higher meals sources, and higher dwelling circumstances. All these massive fish meant bent hooks and busted leaders.

We needed to adapt to those greater and stronger fish by utilizing thicker leaders and heavier hooks. The place we used to tie on 4X or 5X tippet for dry flies, 3X turned the norm. For nymphing, the usual turned 0X to 2X, and streamer fishing turned straight 15-pound check or 20-pound check Maxima. The trout within the Bow River turned so massive and powerful after the flood that we needed to do something and every part we may to offer ourselves a combating probability. As one information put it, “If the chief suits by the attention, use it.”

Fly Fishing Alberta's Bow River
Bow River trout are giant and unusually highly effective. Use heavy tippets to battle and land fish as shortly as doable. (Aaron Hitchins/Rockhouse Movement photograph)

Along with seeing greater fish, it is usually widespread for fisheries to have an upturn in inhabitants after a significant flood. Regardless of dropping eggs and 12 months of the younger through the flood, the river gained extra viable spawning grounds for future generations. As vegetation will get swept away by a flood, cleaner gravel is left behind, offering extra and higher high quality areas for fish to develop spawning grounds (referred to as redds). A comparability of redd depend research between from 1999 and 2015 clearly demonstrates that spawning improved on the Bow River, with some spawning areas recording over 100 extra redds in 2015 than in 1999.

The flood produced different long-term impacts. Reservoirs in your entire watershed had been short-term managed to stop or mitigate a future flood occasion—one which merely didn’t come. The reservoirs had been stored low by the spring, however when the snowmelt handed and summer time got here, the dam operators needed to retain as a lot water as doable, leading to low summertime flows. In 2015 there was a prolonged fishing closure on account of excessive water temperatures led to by low flows and hotter-

than-average climate. The river closure severely impacted native outlets and guides, and lowered the general angling stress. Nonetheless, when temperatures dropped, and the river reopened, the fishing was pretty much as good as ever, perhaps higher.

The renewed Bow with its present sturdy trout inhabitants has some challenges to face within the years forward. Local weather change is one sizzling matter. The river was virtually closed once more in 2016 on account of low flows and sizzling climate. Common temperatures are rising throughout Canada between 0.5 and 1.5 levels, with native temperatures within the Rockies rising by 2 levels.

That is vital for the Bow, provided that about 80 % of its water comes from mountain snowpack. This warming development might translate into much less snow, earlier springs, and fewer water within the river. Much less water creates the potential for extra closures, the unfold of illness, and improve in trout mortality. This water loss can already be seen alongside the higher Bow in Banff, the place common flows have decreased by about 12 % over the past century. One tributary, Marmot Creek, has misplaced about 25 % of its annual flows over the past 50 years.

Whirling illness was first confirmed on the higher Bow in Banff Nationwide Park in August 2016, and later confirmed in your entire watershed. The illness was additionally detected in 5 business aquaculture amenities. Officers haven’t confirmed how lengthy the illness has been in Alberta or the way it acquired right here, however many biologists and outfitters consider it has seemingly been right here for 20 years or extra with no observable adverse results.

Regardless of these points, there are thrilling and promising initiatives on the horizon. A brand new settlement between the province of Alberta and hydroelectric operators was signed in mid-2016. This, together with an Emergency Trout Streams Closure coverage in improvement by the Authorities of Alberta, will hopefully permit for higher administration of the watershed throughout drought years, lessening the potential affect to the fishery and the group that is determined by it for his or her livelihood. New fishing rules for 2017 made your entire Bow River a catch-and-release fishery, and the province is discussing further safety measures for the river, together with doable new parks and guarded areas.

The Metropolis of Calgary plans to develop 25 new entry areas on the Bow River by 2022. It will assist not solely present extra alternatives for fly fishers and different water recreationists, but additionally higher distribute consumer stress alongside the river. The proposed accesses embrace 9 full-service boat launches inside the town limits by the top of 2019.

Fly Fishing Alberta's Bow River
Plans are within the works to dramatically improve fishing entry on Alberta’s Bow River (Dave Jensen photograph)

The Province can be stepping up its involvement in Bow River administration, and in the summertime of 2017 launched a draft Bow River Entry Plan centered on enhancing entry at public amenities at its 5 main entry websites downstream from the town: Fish Creek Provincial Park, Policeman’s Flats, McKinnon Flats, Legacy Island, and Johnson’s Island at Wyndham-Carseland Provincial Park. All these entry areas are within the river’s flood plain and had been severely broken by the 2013 flood.

Double-lane boat launches, correct loos, improved signage, sufficient and controlled parking areas, are all components of the proposal to make the Bow River expertise higher for all customers. After a July public enter interval, a revised draft of the plan is predicted in October 2017. To obtain the whole plan, go to talkaep.alberta.ca and seek for “Bow River Entry Plan.”

The Bow is again and continues to be worthy of its blue ribbon standing, however we can not take it with no consideration. It continues to face all kinds of challenges—from the impacts of local weather change to elevated angling stress and battle over how the river and its water is managed. The very best factor we are able to do is follow greatest angling methods and turn into a part of the administration dialog to make sure the fishery is represented and will be loved for generations to return.

Bow River Q&A with Ross Purnell

I used to be born in Calgary in a hospital overlooking the Bow River, skipped courses on the College of Calgary due to Blue-winged Olive hatches, labored as a information on the river for fairly a number of years, and ended up because the editor of Fly Fisherman, due in nice half to the affect the Bow River had on my life. In my travels I meet many skilled fly fishers from all over the world—most of them have heard of Alberta’s Bow River, however surprisingly few have fished it. Listed below are the questions I mostly get about my house river, together with the quick solutions.

Q: I’ve heard the Bow is a driftboat river. Can I efficiently wade there?

A: Trout within the Bow generally feed near the banks and whereas casting a grasshopper to the financial institution from a drift boat is simpler, wading is sort of at all times a viable choice from Fish Creek Provincial Park or one of many 4 different public boat launches downstream. The legislation in Alberta is much like Montana. When you achieve authorized entry you may stroll/wade under the high-water mark so far as you’d like. Be secure. All massive Western rivers are harmful throughout peak flows.

Q: When is the perfect time to fish the Bow?

A: Site visitors peaks on the Bow through the first two weeks of July due to the opposite big vacationer attraction: The Calgary Stampede. The fishing is mostly fairly good at the moment, however except you’re an enormous rodeo fan, it is best to keep away. June is a crapshoot on account of spring snowmelt. A few of my greatest days on the Bow have been August hopper days, but when it will get too sizzling, the fishing can go downhill. Might is unimaginable, and so is September.  

Q: What flies do I would like?

A: Calgary has six full-service fly outlets, so you may choose up the present “sizzling” flies whenever you’re there. The trout are far much less choosy about particular fly patterns than many different locations. Discovering the fish and presentation are most vital. Be ready to fish streamers, nymphs, or drys, relying on the time of day, season, and the water sort.

Q: Is the Bow actually the “greatest” trout stream within the Rockies?

A: The reply is extraordinarily subjective, however I’ve to say “sure.” There are different locations with many extra trout, extra majestic surroundings, and locations with extra constant dry-fly fishing, however the Bow has greater trout (on common) than any river within the Decrease 48 states. —Ross Purnell


Sean Britt is an environmental marketing consultant, freelance author, angler, and fly tier. He lives in Calgary together with his spouse Nicole, son Ben, and canine Bizzy.



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